Friday 23 February 2018

Herb happy

The dullest dish can be transformed by the addition of a few herbs, says Brenda Costigan, and these wonderful plants will liven up fish, meat, salads and puddings, too

Brenda Costigan

Tear a fresh basil leaf in half and inhale. Words cannot describe the heady aroma that assails your senses. Herbs are magic and, when these little leaves are added to a given dish, it's wonderful how much they enhance it.

The stronger, sturdier herbs, such as bay leaves, rosemary or thyme, are best to use at the start of cooking, while the softer ones, such as basil, are most effective when added nearer to serving or eaten raw, mixed through a salad for example. A simple green salad of lettuce leaves will taste so much more exciting if you add a handful of mixed fresh herbs such as parsley, chives, basil and possibly a little mint. It's great to grow herbs in your garden, or have a few pots growing on your kitchen windowsill -- then you can pinch a few leaves when required. Most supermarkets and greengrocers carry an excellent range of the popular varieties of fresh herbs. Nigel Slater says that he buys his herbs in small bunches, rinses them under cold water when he gets home, and puts them -- while still damp -- into an airtight container in the fridge. This, he says, keeps them fresh for a number of days. When they begin to wilt, he chucks them into a soup. Another effective way to store fresh herbs is to finely chop them, and then pack them into an ice-cube tray with a little water. Freeze them and you have 'herb cubes', which can then be added to soups, stews and sauces.



These thin, herby salmon fingers will cook quickly in the pan. This recipe is simple and tasty, and is inspired by one of Nigel Slater's. I like to finish off by squeezing a little fresh lemon juice on to the fish in the pan before serving it. For a special treat, spoon some creme fraiche over the fish, too. Serves 2-3.

You will need:

450g (1lb) salmon fillets, about 2.5cm (1in) thick, skinned

6 tablespoons chopped, mixed fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, tarragon, dill, or whatever combination you prefer

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

40g (1½oz) butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled

Fresh lemon juice

Creme fraiche (optional)

Remove any little bones from the salmon fillets. Cut the fillets across their width, into fingers about 4cm (1½in) wide. Put the chopped, mixed fresh herbs on a plate and season them lightly with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roll the salmon pieces in them, pressing the herbs firmly on to the surface of the fish.

Put the butter, olive oil and the peeled garlic clove into the pan and heat. Lift out the garlic, then add the prepared fish and cook it until the salmon pieces turn opaque and are just cooked through. Before you lift out the fish, squeeze a little lemon juice over and a little creme fraiche, if you are using it. Serve hot.


This makes a strong, gutsy dressing which you can spoon on steak, grilled salmon or cheese and crackers. You can add extra oil if you wish and toss it through some cooked pasta. If you have any left over, put it into a small container and pour some olive oil over the surface to keep out the air. It will keep for a couple of days in the fridge. Serves 2.

You will need:

25g (1oz) flat-leaf parsley, 15g (½oz) coriander and 15g (½oz) basil

1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon balsamic or wine vinegar

3 teaspoons wholegrain mustard

1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3-5 tablespoons olive oil

Discard any stalks on the flat-leaf parsley, the coriander and basil. The remaining leaves should fill a ½l (1pt) measure if they are moderately tightly packed. Chop the herbs in a food processor, or chop them very finely by hand. Mix the chopped herbs and the finely chopped garlic cloves with the balsamic vinegar or the wine vinegar, whichever you are using. Then add the wholegrain mustard, the deseeded, finely chopped red chilli, and season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the olive oil, and mix all the ingredients together. Serve in a little bowl.

CREAMY herb-topped HAKE

Hake is one of my favourite white fish, but other white fish can be used instead. A combination of finely chopped fresh herbs are spread over the fillet of hake. Surrounded by cream and baked in the oven, this is a delicious way to cook fish.

Use a combination of soft-leaved herbs such as flat-leaf parsley, chives, basil, and maybe some dill, or whatever herbs you have available. There will be about 200g (7oz) per serving of fish, but I like to leave the fish in large fillets until after they are cooked, then divide them into individual portions. Serves 4.

You will need:

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs, such as chives, dill, tarragon, basil, or whatever combination you prefer

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Zest ½ lemon, finely grated

1 tablespoon butter, softened

Butter for greasing

800g (1¾lb) hake fillets

225ml (8fl oz) cream

Lemon wedges, to serve

Preheat the oven to 190°C, 374°F, Gas 5. Heat an ovenproof dish in the oven.

Mix together the chopped fresh parsley and the chopped fresh mixed herbs. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and leave a small amount of the chopped herb mixture aside. Stir the finely grated lemon zest in to the larger portion of chopped fresh herbs, and then mix them through the softened butter. Take the hot dish out of the oven and lightly butter the base. Put the hake fillets into the buttered dish. Spread the herb mixture over the top of each fillet and firmly press the herbs into position. Mix the herbs you have put aside into the cream and season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour into the hot dish around the fish. Cover the dish very loosely with a piece of oiled foil -- which has the oiled side towards the fish, so it won't stick. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes. The fish is cooked when it is opaque, and fairly firm to the touch. Remove the foil for the last few minutes of baking. Serve with the lemon wedges.


Using either homemade mayonnaise or ready-made mayonnaise as a base, you can add a summery touch by stirring a combination of chopped herbs into it, or, if you prefer, just choose one type of chopped herb, such as dill or chives. Serves 1.

You will need:

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon chopped, mixed fresh herbs

1 tablespoon lemon juice or fresh cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix the mayonnaise, the chopped, mixed fresh herbs, the lemon juice or fresh cream, whichever you are using, with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. This is good with grilled fish or cold chicken.


This will make 150ml (5fl oz) of dressing.

You will need:

120ml (4fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

2-3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon runny honey

1 small teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mixed herbs, such as chives, thyme leaves, basil, or whatever combination you prefer

Put the extra virgin olive oil, the lemon juice, the runny honey and the Dijon mustard into a screw-top glass jar. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the chopped fresh parsley and the chopped, fresh mixed herbs and shake the jar vigorously until all the ingredients have blended well together. This dressing will keep in the fridge for about a week.


A hardy plant that grows all year round, rosemary has a delightful, pine-like aroma. I use it frequently, especially when roasting a chicken or lamb, when I tuck little sprigs of it around the meat. It combines very well with parsnip. It can also be used in a dessert, such as the one below. Nectarines can be used instead of peaches, if you prefer. Serves 2-3.

You will need:

15g (½oz) unsalted butter

3-4 ripe peaches, stoned and cut in wedges

2 tablespoons clear honey

Juice 1 large orange

2-3 sprigs of rosemary

Cream or ice cream, to serve

Melt the unsalted butter in a little saucepan and add the stoned peach wedges and toss for a minute or two. The peaches should not lose their shape. Then add the clear honey, the orange juice and the sprigs of rosemary and bring almost to the boil. Lift the saucepan off the heat and allow it to cool a little. Serve warm or cold. Serve with cream or ice cream, whichever you are using.


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